In the United States in 2018, 2,039 suicides were reported in high-schoolers aged 14 to 18. For this age group, suicide is the second leading cause of death. A suicide contagion is the negative impact that the suicide of a close family member, peer, or other relationship can have on a person, putting them at a higher risk of suicide and mental disorder themselves. A suicide in a community such as a school puts other students at risk. However, it is not to be said that such a terrible contagion cannot be avoided. With a careful approach and the necessary tools and resources, schools can create an environment that supports students grieving the loss of their friend and lessens the negative impact of such a painful event. Most school districts already have a protocol in place to guide school leaders in the process of recognizing a suicide in the community, but given the events at my local schools, there is evidently some room for improvement. I hope to propose an accessible plan that schools can incorporate or encourage to promote a healthier response in students suffering the loss of a friend to suicide.
The Current Solution
Currently, schools are very aware of the threat of a suicide contagion occurring in the high-school community. Most school districts or individual schools have some sort of protocol to appropriately address a student suicide. A model “After a Suicide Death” protocol includes some variant of the following steps.
1. Get the Facts
The cause of death should only be acknowledged as a suicide once it has been officially declared a suicide and the parents or guardians agree to disclose that information.
2. Assess the Situation
The staff and faculty at the school should understand the degree to which the students at the school will be affected by the suicide and discuss the best course of action for postvention.
3. Share Information
A crisis response team should prepare a statement that staff and faculty can share with students to inform them of the death. Only information that has been confirmed should be shared with students, but the method of suicide should never be shared. Resources for the student’s mental health should be shared and encouraged.
4. Avoid Suicide Contagion
Give attention to those at most risk for a suicide contagion including anyone who was close with the student, witnessed the suicide, or anyone with pre-existing mental health difficulties. Staff should review signs that a student is struggling with depression or suicide ideation.
5. Initiate Support Services
Students who demonstrate an increased suicide risk should be evaluated by a mental health professional at the school, and support should be provided to those students based off of that evaluation. The school should be in communication with families and any outside mental health professionals involved to ensure the best care for the student.
6. Develop Memorial Plans
When developing memorial plans, on-campus memorials, tributes, services, and the cancellation of a school day should be avoided as much as possible. These events have the potential to sensationalize or romanticize the death which could spur a suicide contagion. During this time, students should be monitored for suicidal risk and suicide prevention should be a focus.
7. Postvention as Prevention
The school should take the time to emphasize suicide prevention during this time. Schools are also encouraged to revise any policies in the protocol for future purposes. The main goal is to prevent a suicide contagion from developing.
What Needs to Change: For Now Response
Positive psychology offers a viable and accessible solution for schools in an effort to both prevent and recover from a student suicide in the community. Gratitude interventions can promote optimism and grief recovery, both of which can serve to help students experiencing suicide ideation and to prevent a suicide contagion from occurring.
How Does Gratitude Help in the Grieving Process?
Gratitude is one key component to building emotional resilience. According to modern research, it accompanies five other necessary components for building resilience: empathy, forgiveness, social competence, problem solving, and autonomy. Resilience is what allows us to recover from negative events and move on to the next thing. Studies such as the one conducted by McCanlies in 2018 have shown that gratitude correlates with resilience and happiness after negative events. This is because the positive emotions such as optimism that gratitude interventions promote allow us to build the resilience we need to recover and grieve in a healthy way. Gratitude interventions also work to strengthen healthy relationships and replace negative thoughts with optimism, two other needs for healthy grief and recovery.
Grief groups are highly accessible and functional vehicles to incorporate gratitude interventions and promote resilience in students who have recently lost a classmate to suicide. A grief group should be an optional but highly encouraged means of support for students, especially those who are at an increased risk of a suicide contagion because of emotional proximity or preexisting mental health conditions. A grief group should be lead by a school mental health professional or advisor, and it should serve as a space to initiate and welcome conversation about the events in the community. More importantly, a grief group for students grieving a classmate’s suicide should introduce students to positive coping methods – more specifically, gratitude interventions.
On a greater scale, schools in the United States are in need of a change in the way students, parents, and faculty approach mental health issues of any sort.
The Negative Extreme:
There is a stigma present that might deter a student concerned about their own mental health or that of a friend from reaching out for help. In some cases, this might result from the idea or belief that a mental health issue is a weakness. In others, the school environment might be competitive in academics and extracurriculars with little emphasis on student wellbeing. Among many other potential factors, this stigma against mental health issues is detrimental to the suicide prevention system in place at any school. Identifying students presenting with signs of suicide ideation or high risk is key to both prevention and postvention, so it is important to change the way mental health is viewed in this respect.
The Positive Extreme:
The positive extreme is the sensationalizing or romanticizing of suicide. A school community is at the highest risk of this after a suicide has occurred and when memorializing a lost classmate. This extreme also puts many students in the community at risk for a suicide contagion after a tragic death in the community. The sensationalizing of suicidal behavior can also take place on social media. Though it is important to the beloved family members and friends that the student lost to suicide is properly respected and remembered, there should be a careful balance between a loving memorial and the detrimental romanticizing of the students suicide.
A Careful Balance:
There is a healthy and gentle way to discuss a suicide in the community. It involves an emphasis on reaching out for help, openly discussing mental illness, and incorporating positive psychology practices like gratitude to promote positive coping mechanisms for students. However, this is a long-term change and one that cannot be satisfied by a revision of protocol or additional policy. This change must involve the way that members of the school community view and approach mental illness. A shift this significant is possible, but it will take time!